What I discovered inside the Old Schools occupation
Students were working away quietly on their laptops, some engaged with designs and promotions for the movement, others working on their essays and supervision work
Cambridge students are currently occupying the Old Schools in solidarity with the University and College Union (UCU) strikes over pay, working conditions, and pensions.
The students have affirmed that they will not leave until their demands are met and are fully equipped to remain in the building for the foreseeable future. I met with the occupiers in an attempt to discover what life inside the so-called ‘Solidarity College Cambridge’ is like.
Optimistic about the nights ahead, one student told me: “It’s not bad at all. I’m very happy we’ve occupied two rooms with cushioned floors and a huge William Morris carpet.”
Led by a group of students, access into the occupied building was surprisingly smooth. Once inside, I was struck by the sense of calm in the first room which was like any other Cambridge library. Students were working away quietly on their laptops, some engaged with designs and promotions for the movement, others working on their essays and supervision work.
When asked about how they planned to keep up with their workload inside the occupation, a student told me: “There are so many spaces here to work and relax in so there’s no need to worry about that. In fact, this is the first space I’ve been in where I’ve felt completely comfortable as everyone is happy to share notes and knowledge. Also, students are able to leave for their supervision if they need to.”
Building on this vision of learning outside the current university education system, the students were busy organising “teach-outs” which would bring those with expertise into the space to discuss topics that relate to the movement. As one student explained, “We are trying to establish a new way of learning which is a radical and unsettling exploration of the power balances that exist in traditional university teaching.”
The students have set up a Facebook page for their new break-away college from the University of Cambridge named “Solidarity College”. Swapping formal hall for communal meals, the students at Solidarity college plan to make a meal every night. With no bedders, the students have established a cleaning rota to ensure there is no damage to the building. There are also yoga sessions in the morning, a massage area, art sessions and even talks of a socialist evensong choir.
From making the toilets gender-neutral to ensuring there are chocolate bourbon biscuits in abundance, the students have worked hard to ensure the space is joyful, welfare-oriented and open for all. Keen to make this a mass movement, the students told me: “People in and out of the university are massively encouraged to come in and chat with us, cook with us and bring a sleeping bag along to get involved.”
All photos the author’s own.